Linz is in upper Austria, and in the soil of Linz and its surrounding villages and towns, amidst the rolling hills that ease up and down along the Salzach and Inn rivers, there is something in the water that seems to make men there determined persons. At times this is not a good thing. Adolph Eichmann was brought up in Linz. Adolph Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, near the German border along the Inn River which flows into the Salzach. But in the case of a Blessed whom we remember today, this determined nature is a great example to us of the social teaching of the Church in practice.
Born in the village of St Radegund just 21 miles from Brauanau am Inn, Franz Jägerstätter was an illegitimate child of Franz Bachmeier and Elisabeth Huber. The father was killed during the first World War, the war to end all wars, and in 1917 Elisabeth married Heinrich Jägerstätter who quickly adopted the young lad.
Franz was a good school boy by all accounts, scoring well in math and history and very well in writing and religion. As a young man, however, he was a bit of a wild one. In fact the Wild One is exactly appropriate since it was Franz who first introduced the small village to the motorcycle.
He was in the habit of drinking too much at the pub. He gambled quite a bit. He was a hard worker, but he played hard too. He was prone to getting into fights with the young men in neighboring villages, and he did enjoy pursuit of the fairer sex.
In the definitive biography of Franz Jägerstätter, In Solitary Witness by Gordon C. Zahn, the author notes how the villagers remember their late Radegundian. His wild youth was practically extolled as a virtue. He was considered a great guy, easy to be around, outgoing and the life of parties. He was a leader amongst his group of friends and was well liked for his joviality and normalcy. All of that would change of course, that is with a kind of conversion in Franz he would change and the attitudes of the villagers would change as well.
In 1933 – as much as we can tell – it seems that Franz fathered an illegitimate child of his own, a girl who would grow up to be Hildegard Auer. This was not the rarest of things. Indeed, it is said that families may at time encourage daughters to secure a good marriage by doing such a thing. But this was not the case here, or if it was Franz was not going to heed the shotgun. He skipped town. Whether he was trying to escape responsibility or was driven out by the other young men of the town for this indiscretion or he believed he needed to find a job to better support this new life, it is not clear. All we know is that he left, worked in the mines, made some money and when he came back he began to be a different man.
By 1935 he was more diligent about prayer. He educated himself about the faith by reading Scripture and borrowing books from the parish. There was an adult education class being offered by the pastor that he attended. In 1936 he had seemingly come all the way around to full devotion to his faith. In a letter to his godson, he wrote:
I can say from my own experience how painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian; it is more like vegetating than living.He was taken with the idea that to be a Christian meant to live it authentically. Thus, he pursued it passionately, determinately. He would no longer be the vegetative Christian who feigns at devotion but does not allow the waters of faith to induce action.
In that same year he married Franziska Schwanginger, a devout Catholic woman. After the wedding the two traveled to Rome for their honeymoon, a rare adventure for humble peasant farmers from Upper Austria. They arrived in Rome and received a papal blessing for their marriage. These events solidified the zealous love for the faith that Franz Jägerstätter had been cultivating.
It is at this point that the villagers, in their retelling of Franz’s life, begin to grumble a bit at the religious “fanaticism” of their neighbor. He would sing hymns while gathering hay. He would take breaks during the day to say a prayer or two, or perhaps to read a holy text. He would fast in the mornings until he could receive Holy Communion at the noon Mass – a significant feat considering how early farmers get up and how hard they work in the morning. He stopped gambling. He stopped frequenting the pubs as much. It was all madness to them. Indeed some of them claim that he was mentally
But isn’t that interesting? It is the personal and open devotion of this simple man that is called madness by the town-folk. This is madness as the winds of war began to blow hard and hot over the Austrian landscape. While Hitler and Mussolini signed a compact, while the German Fuehrer plans to annex Austria, Franz’s signing to Mary our Mother whilst forking hay is thought to be lunacy. Isn’t it the case that the piety of others may make us uncomfortable? Are we often afraid of being socially aggressive by praying in public, saying grace at a restaurant? What do people think of us?
This lunacy of Franz’ would begin to affect his life most acutely because in 1938 Germany announced the Anschluss or the “link-up” between Germany and Austria. The move by Hitler to annex Austria was opposed by Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg who tried to rally the people of Austria towards a referendum against unification. However, Hitler would have none of it. He effectively invaded Austria in March. A referendum was had in April with just
under 100% support for German take-over. One of those who voted against it was Franz Jägerstätter.
In point of fact Franz was the only man in his town to vote against the Anschluss. He believed the Nazi party to be a great evil and a harm against the Church. In perhaps one of the saddest moments for the Catholic Church during the real madness of the Second World War, Cardinal Innitzer of Vienna supported the unification and encouraged Catholics for vote for it. The Cardinal believed that Germany would respect the Catholic Church of Austria and that anything was better than Communist influences from the East. But the peasant from St. Radegund knew better. Franz knew that Hitler was no friend of the Church and that he would destroy all that he touched. He compared the actions of the Austrian Church to that of the Jews who chose arabbas over our own dear Lord. Innitzer would of course learn to regret his decision.
In the years following these events Franz Jägerstätter would rail in solitary voice against the Nazi regime every chance he got, even to the point of refusing their money. One of the fascinating aspects of Jägerstätter’s life – and one that ought to give us great pause as we consider the social doctrine of the Church – shows Franz arguing with neighbors that this new State authority did not have the right to try to feed the poor or care for the widows in St. Radegund. This was the responsibility, so he argued, of the people and not the State. So, though his own family did not live well, he would gather food stuffs and personally deliver them to the poor so that they didn’t have to take the tainted “charity” of the Nazi government.
He wrote once, “Anyone who wishes to practice Christian charity in his deeds can manage to provide the poor with something for their sustenance without” such State intervention. Franz Jägerstätter would also refuse emergency farm grants after a hailstorm. He rejected the advance of the Nazi Folk Community, the Winter Relief Collection and the People’s Welfare Fund. He could be called the Apostle of Subsidiarity in that he resisted the imposition of the State, the national socialist state, on the lives of Christians whose responsibility it was to care for the poor and widowed.
In 1940 he becomes a third order Franciscan and the sacristan for his parish. One of the funny little stories in relation to this is that he would close the church doors as soon as Mass was started in order to force those who showed up late to go through the embarrassing task of having to knock and be let in. In the boldness of his nature, he would also advise his parish priest about what to say in the homilies and how to motivate the people into deeper devotion for the Lord. His pastor took his advice many times.
In the same year he was called up to serve in the Nazi army and at first he did respond to the call. He went through basic training but was given a waiver to return to St. Radegund. This may have been because of age, or the fact that he had three daughters now, or that he was a farmer. Whatever the reason, when he returned after the short military training he began to seek the advice of priests and his bishop about whether it was moral for him to fight for this unjust regime in this unjust war.
They all, to a man, would say later that Franz’s arguments were clear and logical. He would lay out the moral reasoning with precision and passion that he could not and ought not fight for the German side. This was a man in complete control of his faculties. Yet each of them would say to Franz that he had to consider the needs of his family, his wife and three daughters as well. Each of them would tell him that he had duties to the State and that he could join the German effort. But Franz was never convinced. On February 22 of 1943, Franz Jägerstätter was called up for military service by the German high command. He traveled to Enns to report for duty, all the way weighing in his mind and heart what he was to do. How could he leave his family behind? Would there be retribution against them? How does he turn his back on Christ, though? Ought not perfection be the goal of the spiritual life?
On March 1st, after consulting a priest friend once more, a young priest who Franz noted was too comfortable in accepting the monthly stipend for clergy from the Nazis, he responded to the military attaché that he would not fight. He was arrested immediately and taken to Linz. He wrote many letters to his family, to his wife, trying to console them and to give them advice about farming the land. He is sure his decision is the right one, but he is pained for his family. Nevertheless, he notes in a letter to a friend the following:
Again and again people stress the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. Yet I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, he is free to offend God by lying (not to mention all the other things he would be called upon to do). Did not Christ Himself say, ‘He who loves father, mother, or children more than me is not deserving of My love?’Note that this is not political claptrap he is spewing. There is no visceral call for political overthrow or bloody revolution. Jägerstätter is simply responding what Christ’s call to be holy, to be virtuous, to live the Gospel in full. This is important. Franz Jägerstätter is not so much the political dissident who deliberately gets arrested to prove a point. In fact, at one point he suggests to the Germans to allow him to be a medic so that he mightserve in this capacity. They ignored the request. No, Franz was not the long-haired radical sticking it to the man. He was a man in love with Christ Jesus who only wanted to live authentically the Christian life. This was, in Nazi Germany, too much to ask.
On July 6 he was moved to Berlin to stand trial, which was rather quickly done. On this day in 1943 he was beheaded by guillotine. He was 36 years old.
His family survived the war, though they suffered much. The villagers looked after them to a certain degree, but many chalked up Franz’ fate to the lunacy of his faith. For this reason, if not for many others, the life of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter is sobering. He was not viewed as a hero in St. Radegund. He was seen as an irresponsible man who did not take proper care of his family. A father’s role, they argued, is to maintain the means of life for his family. But Franz Jägerstätter saw it differently, and believed he was winning for his family a far greater wealth.
Therefore we must do everything in our power to strive toward the Eternal Homeland and to preserve a good conscience. Then, even if our enemies attack us and even if they are armed, they will not be able to tear us away from this Homeland. Though we must bear our daily sorrows and reap little reward in this world for doing so, we can still become richer than millionaires – for those who need not fear death are the richest and happiest of all. And these riches are there for the asking.He understood the true wealth of the Kingdom of God, where Christ is King and the evil of the Nazi power is but a nuisance to life. He exemplifies what can happen to the authentic Christian in the community of the world, the world that rejects the Holy Spirit because it cannot see the Holy Spirit. Here is what he writes about Christian persecution:
Since the death of Christ, almost every century has seen the persecution of Christians; there have always been heroes and martyrs who gave their lives – often in horrible ways – for Christ and their faith. If we hope to reach our goal some day, then we too must become heroes of the faith. For as long as we fear men more than God, we will never make the grade. O this cowardly fear of men! Because of a few jeering words spoken by our neighbor, all our good intentions are thrown overboard. Of course even the most courageous and best Christians can and will fall, but they will not lie for long in the filth of sin. Instead they will pull themselves together and raw new strength from the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion and strive on to their goal. And should anxious days come up on us when we feel we are being crushed under the weight of our troubles, let us remember that God burdens none of us with a heavier cross than he can bear.None of us. Thanks be to Christ Jesus for giving us Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, and long live Christ the King.